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Why Magic: The Gathering Beats Poker or Chess Any Day

The creators of Magic: The Gathering were painfully aware that their game might be nothing more than a passing fad. So to maintain public interest they created a high-profile Pro Tour for Magic players, complete with TV coverage and cash prizes. It’s a series of events Titus Chalk’s new book Generation Decks, which chronicles the rise of the game from misunderstood novelty to pop culture fixture, investigates in detail.

“There’s a quote in the book from one of the very few executives who was behind the idea at the time, Rick Arons, and he said, ‘Your grandmother might not understand what Magic: The Gathering is, but she’ll understand what a check for $10,000 is,’” Chalk says in Episode 252 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

The strategy paid off, helping to foster a group of professional Magic players like Jon Finkel and David Williams who grew up in the spotlight and were accustomed to high-stakes card games. Having mastered the fiendishly complex rules of Magic, they found it relatively easy to compete in a much simpler game like poker. “As soon as they turned 18 they showed up at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas and made a huge impression,” Chalk says. “They blew this very staid gaming culture out of the water.”

And while computer systems have been solving games like chess and Go, and handily beating even the top-ranked human players, Chalk says that a game like Magic, where the rules can change significantly with each new card, remains the province of flesh-and-blood champions. “There’s just enough of a random factor to make the game incredibly unpredictable,” he says. “And that’s also what makes it so difficult for a Deep Blue to come and start beating the Jon Finkels of the world.”

Chalk hopes that Generation Decks will bring more attention to the accomplishments of players like Finkel and Williams, as well as to people like Richard Garfield and Peter Adkison who created the game.

Listen to our complete interview with Titus Chalk in Episode 252 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Titus Chalk on Magic art:

“One of the things I discovered in the game were just these amazing illustrations, which weren’t like the fantasy illustrations that I was seeing in other games at the time. And part of the reason for that is that they turned to local Seattle students—who were desperate for a paying gig—and they weren’t, by definition, fantasy artists. They were just art students from the local art school, interpreting their briefs in a very different way than someone who’d been perhaps steeped in D&D culture or whatever the prevailing fantasy culture was at the time. And I really loved that, I really loved the much more abstract feel of these cards. … To see this strange, creative game coming out of Seattle, it just kind of tapped into the whole mythology around Seattle at the time.”

Titus Chalk on Peter Adkison:

“He was in his day job at Boeing, which is one of the big companies up in Seattle that employs a lot of people. … [He] had much better computers at work than he did in his basement, and he would stay late at night, while the janitors were making their rounds, working on his new gaming company. And Marilyn, one of the janitors at Boeing, would be chatting with him every night. … One evening Marilyn came up to him and gave him a check for her life savings and said, ‘I don’t understand what you’re doing. I don’t understand what a fantasy game is. But I see you working every night so hard that I believe you’re going to make it. Here’s my life savings. I’d like some shares please. Invest it in your game.’ And later on, when the game did very well, she was able to make a lot of money.”

Titus Chalk on the controversy surrounding Magic:

“There were cards called ‘Demonic Tutor’ or ‘Sacrifice’ which added to the edgy feel at the time, and some people took offense at this. And this one woman in the Bedford school district tried to get Magic banned, and it led to this big hoo-ha, where the [administrator] for the district had to ban it in his schools, and he then took the game to child psychologists and said, ‘Is there anything here that could harm kids?’ And he had to get this clean bill of health to allow kids to play it in the school district. … It ended in a massive legal fight that took years to clear up.”

Titus Chalk on Richard Garfield:

“I don’t think I would have been able to do the game justice if I hadn’t had a chance to speak with him. He’s a real hero, for not just myself, but for anyone who’s picked up the game and had it affect them in that way. From perhaps being a bit of an outcast or looking for something to belong to, Richard Garfield is this sort of spiritual father figure for all us Magic players. … He’s just an absolutely down-to-earth, lovely guy. As I said, a little bit spacey—I think he’d be the first to admit that. He’s clearly got a million ideas for different games ticking away up there in his brain. But he was really accommodating, and I think he’s acutely aware of not just inventing a game that people like, but having invented a game that really changed the way people feel about themselves.”

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